Like any English undergrad, I’ve been lectured on the concept of close-reading by nearly every professor I’ve encountered. During discussions of how to find meaning by picking apart the form and content of a text, I’ve often found myself thinking about Dark Souls. At the time, I almost felt ashamed for thinking about a video game rather than a novel. But after a year of considering the game’s analytical potential, I’ve realized that Dark Souls had taught me how to close-read long before I was even given a definition for the term.
Created by developer FromSoftware, Dark Souls has garnered both acclaim and criticism for its lack of guidance and difficult combat. Many who play Dark Souls would describe it as a masochistic dark fantasy game with a dry narrative that barely ventures into the foreground. Those people are partially right, and on my first few attempts to play the game I agreed with them. I dismissed Dark Souls as flawed and inaccessible and left the game on my shelf to gather dust.
What changed my opinion was the Souls Community. This collective of YouTubers, bloggers, Reddit threads, wikis, and many other Internet venues had undertaken the task of analyzing and interpreting Dark Souls and its sequels. After immersing myself in essays and videos dedicated to the game’s narrative and gameplay, I had to give it a second chance. After all, how could I dismiss the patterns clearly seen by so many others?
All I had to do was change my expectations. The second time I played Dark Souls, I didn’t expect it to provide me with a prominent narrative coupled with a challenging yet railroaded gameplay experience. In other words, I had to realize it wasn’t designed like so many other modern roleplaying games. It was designed to be a lot deeper than that.
This time, I experienced the game step by step. I overcame its merciless combat by realizing that its gameplay rewarded patience. Those who rushed in expecting instant gratification were inevitably given a grey screen with the words “YOU DIED”. By being patient, I saw the holes in my enemies’ attack patterns, allowing me to turn the fight to my advantage. I then applied this philosophy to its obscure story, and I came away amazed at the level of detail the creators had woven into its minimalistic world.
On the surface, Lordran (the setting of Dark Souls) is just another medieval fantasy world with knights, demons, gods, and dragons. There is a fallen kingdom to reclaim and heck, there is even a princess to save. It’s only when you start examining your environment, reading item descriptions, and making the connections between them that you start to decipher the game’s lore. That’s when you realize that the “monster” you killed was just defending the grave of her long dead master; that the princess and the kingdom of sunlight to which you pledged your fealty were just illusions created by a lonely deity of the moon; that the dark portal you were dragged through didn’t actually bring you to a new location, it just put you back in the same place several hundreds of years in the past.
Any other game would just give the player all of this information in cutscenes, long expository dialogue, or big chunks of text. But instead of telling, Dark Souls shows the player the aftermath of these events and expects them to take the initiative to make sense of it all. This game expects a patient, attentive, and skeptical player, and if you meet the game on its own terms it will reward you for your efforts.
Nevertheless, there are always gaps in the story that the player will have to interpret for themselves. While other games may provide every question they raise with a canonical answer, Dark Souls revels in its fragments and provides the player with just enough evidence to evoke narratives and themes that they have to interpret on their own.
While part of close-reading involves discovering a text’s hidden meanings, the rest is all about the interpretation of what you’ve discovered. Your interpretation is the “so what?” that gives your findings an actual purpose. This is why people still continue to interpret and reinterpret the lore of Dark Souls. Like any dense text, Dark Souls provided me with multiple layers of understanding to critically analyze in order to discover evidence to fuel my own interpretations.
The game never explicitly told me to do this. Instead I was led to this path through its combat, which taught me to be aware of the details and to take things slowly. Then, when I discovered that its item descriptions suggested the existence of unseen narratives, I felt encouraged to gather evidence and come up with my own conclusions. In lecture, you may close-read a text simply because the professor told you to do so. But Dark Souls convinced me that in order to enjoy the game for what it was, close-reading was my best option.
I’m sure many people have discovered the concept of close-reading through complex novels or other works that require critical analysis. For them, those works are what pop-up in their thoughts whenever the topic is brought up. Since Dark Souls has come to occupy that space in my thoughts, I’ve begun to wonder when video games will become a valid medium of study. When will the first courses on close-reading video games begin? When will the first person graduate with a major in video game studies? The international success of Dark Souls has shown that there is a demand for this kind of game. This means that developers are likely to produce such games in the future, and perhaps even find new ways to increase their depth and complexity.
While I think Dark Souls came out far too early to be regarded as a subject of professional study, I’m sure that the Souls Community will continue to discover new interpretations of this game’s vast textual world. Hopefully, that will be enough for future video game scholars to recognize Dark Souls as part of a vanguard that led the medium into the realm of professional study.
-Contributed by Lawrence Stewen